By Dr.Swaran Singh/Ceylon Today
Beijing this week is witnessing its 10-day-long and the largest annual political jamboree involving “Two Sessions” namely the China People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and the National Peoples’ Congress (NPC). The two sessions are being held from March 5 to 15.
The CPPCC is among the world’s largest advisory bodies and the NPC is the world’s largest parliament representing 1.4 billion Chinese i.e. 19 percent or world population.
The 5,138 delegates (2,980 of the NPC and 2,158 of CPPCC), have descended on the national Capital from far and wide.
They represent a whole range of ethnic communities and political parties (yes, multiple political parties) from mainland China and also compatriots from Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan and over 35 million overseas Chinese.
Together, they include popularly elected delegates and also retired officials, business tycoons and celebrities like actor Jackie Chan, former NBA star Yao Ming, Tencent founder Pony Ma and scores of professors, musicians and artists.
These people’s representatives and political advisors will be the buzz of Beijing for ten days. Hopefully, they will also devote some time to debating and reviewing the past year’s achievements and setting the next year’s targets for China’s leaders.
As regards China’s leaders, this year’s “Two Sessions” become especially significant for testing their legitimacy and connection with their cadres.
These humongous sessions have over the years become attractive events for the world media. They are taking place even as China is facing formidable and unprecedented challenges.
The challenges include a slowing down of China’s economy; a rising fiscal deficit and unemployment; continuing trade war with the US; Western security concerns about Huawei’s 5G equipment; and over three months of detention of Huawei Executive Ms Meng Wanzhou in Canada and, of course, continuing media reports about millions of Xinjiang’s Uyghur Muslims being interned.
This is why initial reports about the “Two Sessions”, including the Work Report presented by Premier Li Keqiang this Tuesday appear far more forthcoming and inclusive of social and political risks. They have gone beyond reporting only on indices of economic success.
On Tuesday, Premier Li Keqiang announced tax cuts worth Two trillion yuan (US$ 289 billion) to stimulate domestic consumption. The Value added tax is being slashed from 16 to 13 per cent and duties on transportation and construction were brought down to 9 or 10 per cent.
China can redress a lot of social and political anxieties by providing economic incentives. China today is not just the world’s second largest economy (US$ 13.4 trillion compared to US $20.5 trillion) but is also upwardly mobile rapidly. It is growing even now at 6.5 per cent which the US economy is growing at less than 3 per cent.
Sifting through dozens of reports presented in these sessions, one would come to know that more than tax cuts China is also taking several other measures to control expenditure. Together these measures reflect a sense of restraint and caution.
Premier Li in his Work Report points to the factors threatening the world’s second largest economy and advocated “stronger mitigating actions” to ensure stable growth while reducing reliance on debt.
A separate budget report released at the start of the NPC session details on how, compared to last year’s rise of 8.1 per cent, China’s 2019 defense budget will get a raise of only 7.5 per cent. Should this be seen as a downturn in military modernization?
However, a lot of these could be mere symbolic. Like several other countries, China’s defense budget does not include several defense related allocations especially strategic and dual use technology development projects. Strategic projects like research and development and under-construction aircraft carriers or stealth fighters aircraft are not part of the annual defense budget. The annual defense budget only includes operational expenses for the upkeep and running of its military apparatus.
Given that China has plans to build six aircraft carriers by 2035, large amounts of such investments in military modernization will never be reflected in China’s defense expenditure. Small wonder then that some institutions say that China’s defense spending is much higher than the official figures given by Beijing.
Premier Li’s Work Report underlines China as the world’s largest “developing country”. But while claiming to be a developing country, Premier Li’s Work Report also underlines how the service sector now accounts for over 60 percent of China’s GDP and how growth in high-tech industry and equipment manufacturing has far outstripped other industries.
The automation and modernization of its production processes have resulted in China’s achieving an impressive 3.1 per cent cut in its sulfer dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions per unit of GDP. The target of an additional 3 per cent is being set for 2019. It is the carbon cutting of China’s rapidly advancing economy that has been the basis for claiming a leadership role in global climate change mitigation.
China’s new assertive leadership has popularized a new discourse on “China Dream and National Rejuvenation” that seeks to consolidate China’s power and seek its share in global governance.
Premier Li, for instance, this Tuesday stated China’s need to protect its “national sovereignty and territorial integrality”. He said: “We resolutely oppose Taiwan’s independence.”
This clearly echoed President Xi Jinping’s new year’s message to his Taiwanese compatriots where he had reiterated his call for peaceful unification under ‘one-country-two-systems’ formulation. If this did not happen China reserved the right to use force as well.
This template worked successfully in the case of Hong Kong and Macao. But such an assertive tenor could trigger media speculation about cross-Strait relations and their regional implications.
Also not to be missed is how the Chinese media highlights the squabbling and violence in world’s other parliaments to highlight decorum, orderliness and discipline in these “Two Sessions”.
In the Two Sessions all work is done by Standing Committees that work on regular basis. The delegates meet usually only once a year to rubber stamp their endorsement. There have been very few occasions when a CPPCC or a NPC member has shown reluctance to approve a government proposal. One such instance was Three Georges Dam proposal in 1992.
The main purpose of the “Two Sessions” is to enable the leaders to connect with the cadres. The theme will continue to be the groundbreaking decisions on “building China as a moderately prosperous society in all respects” under the all pervasive command of “the Party Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping at its core and guided by Xi Jinping’s Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era” remains the running thread in all their work plans.
The aim is to ensure sustainable growth, elimination of poverty, provide better healthcare, and protect the environment and national sovereignty and territory integrity of China.
(Dr.Swaran Singh is Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi) and senior fellow, Institute for National Security Studies Sri Lanka ,Colombo)